Having some doubts, from the wording of the foregoing orders, as to the extent of my authority over the troops of General McDowell and as to the time when I might anticipate his arrival, on the 21st of May I sent this dispatch:
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
Camp near Tunstall’s Station, Va., May 21, 1862—11 p. m.
Your dispatch of yesterday, respecting our situation and the batteries of Fort Darling, was received while I was absent with the advance, where I have been all this day. I have communicated personally with Captain Goldsborough and by letter with Captain Smith. The vessels can do nothing without co-operation on land, which I will not be in condition to afford for several days. circumstances must determine the propriety of a land attack.
It rained again last night, and rain on this soil soon makes the roads incredibly bad for army transportation. I personally crossed the Chickahominy to-day at Bottom’s Bridge Ford and went a mile beyond, the enemy being about half a mile in front. I have three regiments on the other bank, guarding the rebuilding of the bridge. Keyes’ corps is on the New Kent road, near Bottom’s Bridge. Heintzelman is on the same road, within supporting distance. Sumner is on the railroad, connecting right with [p.29] left. Stoneman, with advance guard, is within 1 mile of New Bridge. Franklin, with two divisions, is about 2 miles this side of Stoneman. Porter’s division, with the reserves of infantry and artillery, is within supporting distance. Headquarters will probably be at Cold Harbor to-morrow, 1 mile this side of Franklin. All the bridges over the Chickahominy are destroyed. The enemy are in force on every road leading to Richmond within a mile or two west of the stream. Their main body is on the road from New Bridge, encamped along it for 4 or 5 miles, spreading over the open ground on both sides. Johnston’s headquarters are about 2 miles beyond the bridge.
All accounts report their numbers as greatly exceeding our own. The position of the rebel forces, the declaration of the Confederate authorities, the resolutions of the Virginia Legislature, the action of the city government, the conduct of the citizens, and all other sources of information accessible to me give positive assurance that our approach to Richmond involves a desperate battle between the opposing armies.
All our divisions are moving toward the foe. I shall advance steadily and carefully, and attack them according to my best judgment and in such manner as to employ my greatest force.
I regret the state of things as to General McDowell’s command. We must beat the enemy in front of Richmond. One division added to this army for that effort would do more to protect Washington than his whole force can possibly do anywhere else in the field. The rebels are concentrating from all points for the two battles at Richmond and Corinth. I would still most respectfully suggest the policy of our concentrating here by movements on water. I have heard nothing as to the probabilities of the contemplated junction of McDowell’s force with mine. I have no idea when he can start, what are his means of transportation, or when he may be expected to reach this vicinity. I fear there is little hope that he can join me overland in time for the coming battle. Delays on my part will be dangerous. I fear sickness and demoralization. This region is unhealthy for Northern men, and unless kept moving I fear that our soldiers may become discouraged. At present our numbers are weakening from disease, but our men remain in good heart.
I regret also the configuration of the Department of the Rappahannock. It includes a portion even of the city of Richmond. I think that my own department should embrace the entire field of military operations designed for the capture and occupation of that city.
Again, I agree with Your Excellency that one bad general is better than two good ones.
I am not sure that I fully comprehend your orders of the 17th instant, addressed to myself and General McDowell. If a junction is effected before we occupy Richmond, it must necessarily be east of the railroad to Fredericksburg and within my department. This fact, my superior rank, and the express language of the Sixty-second article of war, will place his command under my orders, unless it is otherwise specially directed by Your Excellency; and I consider that he will be under my command, except that I am not to detach any portion of his forces or give any orders which can put him out of position to cover Washington. If I err in my construction, I desire to be at once set right.
Frankness compels me to say, anxious as I am for an increase of force, that the march of McDowell’s column upon Richmond by the shortest route will in my opinion uncover Washington as to any interposition by it as completely as its movement by water. The enemy cannot advance by Fredericksburg on Washington. Should they attempt a movement, which to me seems utterly improbable, their route would be by Gordonsville and Manassas.
I desire that the extent of my authority over McDowell may be clearly defined, lest misunderstandings and conflicting views may produce some of those injurious results which a divided command has so often caused. I would respectfully suggest that this danger can only be surely guarded against by explicitly placing General McDowell under my orders in the ordinary way, and holding me strictly responsible for the closest observance of your instructions. I hope, Mr. President, that it is not necessary for me to assure you that your instructions would be observed in the utmost good faith, and that I have no personal feelings which could influence me to disregard them in any particular.
I believe that there is a great struggle before this army, but I am neither dismayed nor discouraged. I wish to strengthen its force as much as I can, but in any event I shall fight it with all the skill, caution, and determination that I possess, and I trust that the result may either obtain for me the permanent confidence of my Government or that it may close my career.
GEO. B. McCLELLAN,
His Excellency ABRAHAM LINCOLN,
President of the United States.
MAY 24, 1862—(From Washington, 24th.)
I left General McDowell’s camp at dark last evening. Shields’ command is there, but it is so worn that he cannot move before Monday morning, the 26th. We have so thinned our line to get troops for other places that it was broken yesterday at Front Royal, with a probable loss to us of one regiment infantry, two companies cavalry, putting General Banks in some peril.
The enemy’s forces under General Anderson now opposing General McDowell’s advance have as their line of supply and retreat the road to Richmond.
If, in conjunction with McDowell’s movement against Anderson, you could send a force from your right to cut off the enemy’s supplies from Richmond, preserve the railroad bridges across the two forks of the Pamunkey, and intercept the enemy’s retreat, you will prevent the army now opposed to you from receiving an accession of numbers of nearly 15,000 men, and if you succeed in saving the bridges you will secure a line of railroad for supplies in addition to the one you now have. Can you not do this almost as well as not while you are building the Chickahominy bridges? McDowell and Shields both say they can, and positively will, move Monday morning. I wish you to move cautiously and safely.
You will have command of McDowell, after he joins you, precisely as you indicated in your long dispatch to us of the 21st.
Maj. Gen. GEORGE B. MCCLELLAN.
This information that McDowell’s corps would march from Fredericksburg on the following Monday (the 26th), and that he would be under my command, as indicated in my telegram of the 21st, was cheering news, and I now felt confident that we would on his arrival be sufficiently strong to overpower the large army confronting us.